Online Extra: iTeach

One man’s headfirst plunge into kid world

If science teacher Bill Seng is sitting in his living room, watching TV, and happens upon a great program on robots on PBS, he grabs his iPod Touch and e-mails the news to his students from Medford’s Lenape Regional High School. They get the e-mail on their iPod Touches, provided by the school district via a pilot program, instituted by Seng, that keeps kids tethered to him 24/7.

Last year’s Teacher of the Year for Lenape Regional High School District, Seng, 39, has been pushing tech in the classroom since he began teaching nine years ago. “That first year, I observed the level of energy teachers had to use to manage kids’ pocket devices,” he says. “There was a lot of frustration and anger. Teachers wanted to push the devices out. But that’s when it dawned on me: These things aren’t going away. We’ll only see more of them.”

So he decided not to fear their power, but to harness it to draw kids in. Seng administers quizzes online, posts updates on his Facebook page, provides links and research tips, and encourages students to explore all that the Internet makes available to them through the iPods. “We think of the Internet as music, games, videos,” he says. “We don’t think of the power of the technology that’s there.” A video he made to thank the school board for the iPods demonstrates just a few of these marvels: an at-your-fingers periodic table, a working seismometer, paper-free science-lab data recording, a library of Shakespeare’s works, a handwriting-to-text-converting notepad, even an alarm clock to rouse you out of bed.

“Kids like it,” he says of the one-to-one link. “It’s something that’s tangible to them; they’re growing up with it, evolving with it.” Seng acknowledges challenges: The Wolfram/Alpha search engine the iPods employ, for instance, “spits math answers right back at you — answers to any equation.” Teachers complain that kids can cheat on their homework. “I say, make the homework different,” says Seng. “Put it in the form of word problems, so they have to think about it.”

Some of Seng’s tech enthusiasm may spring from the fact he came to teaching relatively late in life; he had prior stints as a field biologist for the Audubon Society and as a clam aquaculturalist (with his dad). That real-world grounding affects how he sees the profession he’s been pursuing for the past eight years. “Books and pencils and notebooks are technology, too,” he says. “For a really long period of time, they worked. But those children didn’t have TV, the Internet, 3G networks. If you just say, ‘Here, read this textbook’ — on some level, that’s what they’re used to. But are they going to be excited, make connections outside the textbook, remember it later? Technology brings that excitement.”

He notes that his district is doing a good job even at the elementary- and middle-school levels of teaching “Internet literacy” — the need to assess websites, to find out who’s disseminating the information they offer and paying for it to be there. “Kids know you can’t just use the first website that pops up on Google,” he says. “They’re becoming more aware.”

He admits, though, that judging the efficacy of high-tech teaching is tough. Sure, the iPods make school more fun. “But can we use standardized tests to measure improvement?” he asks. “That’s a whole other can of worms.” It’s also, interestingly, where the human touch comes back in. “Raw data, numbers — I’m searching for a way to put that to the test,” Seng says. “For now, when the school board asks, ‘How much more are they really learning?,’ I say, “You just have to trust me.’”